People

The 2011 census was delayed indefinitely and no new census has been scheduled. The issue that makes a census such a delicate procedure is the proposal to exclude people who have been absent from the country for over a year. A large proportion of the Albanian population has left the country to work abroad and they fear being under-represented in such a census.

In 2004, the population of 2,022,547 was divided thus: Macedonians (64%), Albanians (25%), Turks (4%), Roma (2.7%), Serbs (1.8%) and others (2.5%), including Vlachs – alleged descendants of Roman frontier soldiers.

Religion

Most Macedonians are Orthodox Christians, with some Macedonian-speaking Muslims (the Torbeši and Gorani). Turks are Muslim, as are Albanians and (nominally, at least) the impoverished Roma. Social and ethnic complexities relating to religion have caused concern over Islamic fundamentalism, as seen in protests and violent attacks on Christians.

A 200-strong Jewish community, most of whom live in Skopje, descends from Sephardic Jews who fled Spain after 1492. More than 7200 people – 98% of their ancestors – were deported to Treblinka by Bulgarian occupiers in WWII. The community holds a Holocaust commemoration ceremony every 11 March, and the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia in Skopje is a must-see for anyone interested in this grim part of North Macedonia's modern history.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church isn't recognised by some neighbouring Orthodox countries, but it's active in church-building and restoration work. Although Macedonians don't attend church services in large numbers, they do stop to light candles, kiss icons and pray.

Arts

Macedonian folk instruments include the gajda (a single-bag bagpipe) and zurla (a double-reed horn), often accompanied by the tapan (drum). Other instruments include the kaval (flute) and tambura (small lute with two pairs of strings).

Traditional dancing includes the oro circle dance, the male-only Teškoto oro (difficult dance), Komitsko oro (symbolising the anti-Ottoman struggle), and the Tresenica, performed by women from the mountainous region of Mariovo.

Macedonian musicians have won international acclaim, including pianist Simon Trpčeski, opera singer Boris Trajanov, jazz guitarist Vladimir Četkar and percussionists the Tavitjan Brothers. Especially beloved is Toše Proeski, a charismatic singer admired for both his music and humanitarian work who died tragically in 2007, aged just 26.

Milcho Manchevski is North Macedonia's best-known film director. His film Before the Rain (1994) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The New York Times included Before the Rain in its Guide to the Best 1000 Films Ever Made.

Environment

The Continental and Mediterranean climate zones converge in North Macedonia (25,713 sq km). Although mostly plateau (600m to 900m above sea level), it features more than 50 mountain peaks topping 2000m. The Vardar River starts in the west, passes Skopje and runs into Greece's Aegean Sea. Lakes Ohrid and Prespa are among Europe's oldest tectonic lakes (three million years old); Ohrid is the Balkans' deepest. International borders are largely mountainous, including Shar Mountain, near Kosovo in the northwest; Mt Belasica, in the southeast, bordering Greece; and the Osogovski and Maleševski ranges near Bulgaria. North Macedonia's highest peak, Mt Korab (2764m), borders Albania in the Mavrovo National Park.

Flora & Fauna

North Macedonia's eastern Mediterranean and Euro-Siberian vegetation contains pine-clad slopes. Lower mountains feature beech and oak. Vineyards dominate the central plains. Endemic flora includes the molika tree, a subalpine pine unique to Mt Pelister, and the rare foja tree on Lake Prespa's Golem Grad island.

North Macedonia's alpine and low Mediterranean valley zones have bears, wild boars, wolves, foxes, chamois and deer. The rare lynx inhabits Shar Mountain and Jasen Nature Reserve. Blackcaps, grouse, white Egyptian vultures, royal eagles and forest owls inhabit woodlands. Lake birds include rare Dalmatian pelicans, herons and cormorants. Storks (and their huge nests) are prominent. North Macedonia's national dog, the šar planinec, is a 60cm-tall sheepdog that protects sheep from predators.

Lakes Ohrid, Prespa and Dojran are separate fauna zones, due to territorial and temporal isolation. With more than 200 endemic species, Ohrid is a living fossil-age museum – its endemic trout predates the last ice age. Ohrid also has whitefish, gudgeon and roach, plus a 30-million-year-old snail genus, and the mysterious Ohrid eel, which arrives from the Sargasso Sea to live for 10 years before returning to breed and die.

National Parks

Pelister (near Bitola) and Galičica (between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa) National Parks are in a tri-border protected area involving Albania and Greece. Both are laced with walking trails and Galičica is home to a number of mountain villages. Mavrovo National Park (in North Macedonia's west, between Debar and Tetovo) offers great hiking in summer and skiing in winter. All parks are accessible by road.

Environmental Issues

Lake Ohrid's endemic trout (Salmo letnica) is an endangered species and protected from fishing. Locals take the warning quite seriously these days and farm trout to put on their menus instead.

More broadly, the lake's growing popularity as a stop-off on the tourist circuit has become cause for concern among conservation groups. Plans were drawn up to create a marina, artificial Mediterranean-style beaches and new apartments by draining an important marshland that acts as a natural filter to the lake. A local initiative called Ohrid SOS was set up in 2015 to help challenge the proposals, and these plans have been shelved. The struggle to find a balance between commercial desires and conservation imperatives continues.

Food & Drink

North Macedonia's specialities are part Ottoman, part Central European. The tomato is king and grows abundantly here: the national salad, šopska salata, features tomatoes, peppers, onions and cucumbers topped with tangy sirenje (white cheese). Tavče gravče (oven-cooked white beans in a tomato sauce) and lukanci (homemade chorizo-like pork sausages) are divine.

Skara (grilled meat) includes spare ribs, beef kebapci (kebabs) and uviač (rolled chicken or pork stuffed with yellow cheese). Skara in particular is ubiquitous.

For breakfast, try burek (cheese, spinach or minced meat in filo pastry) with drinking yoghurt, or mekici (fried dough) with homemade jam.

Skopsko Pivo and Zlaten Dab are the two local beers; they're both lagers, but Zlaten Dab has more flavour. The national firewater, rakija, is a strong fruit brandy typically made from grapes (recipes vary across the Balkan countries) and most locals have their own homemade stash. Liquors made from cherries and plums are also popular – Macedonians will try to make the most of what they can find locally; cherry trees are everywhere and laden with fruit in summer.

Essential Food & Drink

  • Šopska salata Served with just about every meal – tomatoes, peppers, onions and cucumbers topped with grated sirenje (white cheese).
  • Uviač Rolled chicken or pork wrapped in bacon, filled with melted yellow cheese.
  • Lukanci Homemade chorizolike pork sausages, laced with paprika; you'll see this in rural restaurants and at village guesthouses.
  • Tavče gravče Macedonian speciality of baked beans cooked with spices, onions and herbs and served in earthenware.
  • Ajvar Sweet red-pepper dip; accompanies meats and cheeses.
  • Pita A pie made of a coil of flaky pastry stuffed with various ingredients – usually local cheese and spinach or leek.
  • Rakija Grape-based fruit brandy, used for celebrations (and sometimes taken at breakfast!).
  • Vranec and Temjanika North Macedonia's favourite red- and white-wine varietals.